Stop Naming Your Child’s Feeling Mid-Meltdown, Says Dr. Becky

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For all intents and purposes, a tantrum can best be described as an emotional fire. When your kid reaches that point, all bets are off. In fact, as parents, we’ll employ almost any tactic to return to a state of calm.

Still, there’s one technique that Dr. Becky Kennedy, a child psychologist and author of Good Inside, says we should avoid: Labeling our kid’s emotions in the moment. We recently chatted with Kennedy as she helped relaunch the newly reimagined LEGO Friends Universe (The brand recently launched a range of new faces dedicated to non-visible and visible representation as well as kids’ full range of emotions.)

Her suggestion: Name the wish instead.

Let’s say your kid is melting down after you set a limit on screen time. All they want is another show. Resist the urge to label the feeling (“I see you’re frustrated”) and prioritize verbalizing the unfulfilled wish at the root of their tears. “You wish you could watch another episode of Bluey.” More situations: “You wish you could have ice cream for breakfast” or “You wish you could stay up late like your brother.”

“Seeing the wish is a version of seeing the good kid under the bad behavior,” Dr. Kennedy explains. It also keeps you rooted in the present as you work together to uncover the cause of their meltdown—and hopefully a solve.

Because if a tantrum is an emotional fire, it’s not the easiest moment to create a teachable moment—for example, helping your child identify the range of emotions raging through their heads. It’s also far too easy for our own minds to enter panic mode as we try to quell the tears, which makes our abilities to soothe and calm less effective.

Naming the wish grounds us in the goal. And if we say it aloud, it reminds our child that we see and value their intention and POV.

This isn’t to say you don’t have to set a boundary (you do!), but if you prioritize the most generous and supportive interpretation of why your child is struggling, it can help bring things back to zero faster. “You can also say, ‘You’re a good kid having a hard time,’” Dr. Kennedy suggests. “Just that line alone is always so helpful. I would love to hear that from someone when I’m not at my best.” 

“Kids are born with all the feelings, but none of the skills to manage those feelings,” Dr. Kennedy says. Validating their experiences is a great place to start.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Becky Kennedy is a child psychologist and author of Good Inside, a guide to common parenting challenges. Her work focuses on using mindfulness and emotion regulation, alongside her knowledge of internal family systems theory, to provide a thoughtful approach to raising children.

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